Tag Archives: Calvin

Marie Dentiere—The Woman on the Reformation Wall

There is one woman’s name on the famous Reformation Wall in Geneva. She is Marie Dentiere, and she has become a somewhat controversial figure in the story of the reformation. Some have labeled her an early feminist and suggest she was a nuisance to Calvin. Others see a bold and passionate woman who used the means available to her to spread the gospel, and who ended up writing the preface to one of Calvin’s books as a result.

Marie was a French noblewoman who joined an Augustinian convent in her mid-twenties. In the convent she studied some of Luther’s writings, and as a result, left the convent within three years of her arrival. Soon after, Marie met and married another monastical escapee, Simon Robert, who was active in the reformation movement. Together they moved on a pastoral assignment to Valais, where William Farel was a missionary at the time. This was the first time a married couple, not just a solo pastor, had accepted a pastoral assignment for the French reformed church, and people began to take notice of Marie’s active involvement in many aspects of the ministry. She learned Hebrew and Latin, and helped her husband translate a Bible. She also accompanied her husband on many of his evangelistic trips. Eventually, her husband, Simon, died. She married her husband’s good friend, Antoine Froment, and together they moved to Geneva.

Marie Dentiere BookMarie’s personal mission was evangelism, particularly evangelism of women. She visited a convent early in Geneva’s reformation, where she tried to persuade the nuns to leave the Catholic faith, join the reformation, and start a family. Marie was acquainted with the sister of the King of France, Marguerite de Navarre, to whom she wrote a strong letter encouraging her and all women to study the Bible themselves, and to use what means were available to women for spreading the Word:

“For what God has given you and revealed to us women, no more than men should we hide it and bury it in the earth. And even though we are not permitted to preach in public in congregations and churches, we are not forbidden to write and admonish one another in all charity.”

Though her letter was addressed to Marguerite, her tone indicated that she wanted, and expected, her letter to be spread to many women all across Europe “and principally for the poor little women wanting to know and understand the truth, who do not know what path, what way to take, in order that from now on they be not internally tormented and afflicted, but rather that they be joyful, consoled, and led to follow the truth, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Her letter was later published by a printer in Geneva.

Because Marie had left the convent and found new spiritual life in being able to study the Bible and apply its meaning to her own life, she desired that all women take up this master-tool available to them. In her letter Marie also mentioned her “little daughter” who is perhaps not so little because she had just authored a Hebrew grammar curriculum to instruct other “little” girls in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. Marie hoped that Marguerite’s daughter will find it useful, “For as you well know, the female sex is more shameful than the other, and not without cause. For until now, Scripture has been so hidden from them. No one dared say a word about it, and it seemed that women should not read or hear anything in the Holy Scriptures. That is the main reason, my Lady, that has moved me to write to you, hoping in God that henceforth women will not be so scorned as in the past.” Marie didn’t push against the Biblical restrictions on women teaching in reformed churches, but merely desired that women take up all the opportunities that the reformation made available to them.

“Therefore, if God has given grace to some good women, revealing to them by His Holy Scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write, speak, and declare it to one another because of the defamers of truth? Ah, it would be too bold to try to stop them, and it would be too foolish for us to hide the talent that God has given us, God who will give us the grace to persevere to the end.”

She knew that her words would not be accepted by everyone.

“Some might be upset because this is said by a woman, believing that this is not appropriate for her, since woman is made for pleasure. But I pray you to be not offended; you must not think that I do this from hatred or from rancor. I do this only to edify my neighbor, seeing him in such great, horrible darkness… No man could be able to expose it enough. How, therefore, will a woman do it?”

She desired to dispel the myth that women were made only for sensual enjoyment, and didn’t have brains to think and study. She resisted those who said, “It is not up to women to know [Scripture]… but they should just believe without questioning anything.” She continued, “[the Catholics] just want us to give pleasure, as is our custom, to do our work, spin on the distaff, live as women before us did, like our neighbors.” She countered, “Do we have two gospels, one for men and another for women? One for the wise and another for fools? Are we not one in our Lord?”

Marie also authored one of the first eyewitness histories of the reformation in Geneva. She wrote under the guise of a masculine merchant. Her perspective was not exactly chronological, but she put great care into interpreting the various events from a spiritual point of view. She drew metaphorical parallels between the exodus of Israel from Egypt, and the exodus of Geneva from Catholicism. She wrote this history to encourage fellow protestants in their sufferings, much as the Israelites had suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, and her message was to “hope against all hope.”

However, this remarkable lady wasn’t without her vices. On several occasions, Marie Dentiere made herself a nuisance to the reformers of Geneva, possibly because of her public lectures on street corners and in taverns, where her audience was usually men. Her message was allegedly that of the reformation, and she seemed to support all that the the reformers were doing, but historians say that it was her manner of delivery and her chosen audience that called her message into question. On several occasions, Farel said she was corrupting her husband and indicated that she seemed to be the leader in their marriage. Calvin mentioned her in a letter to Farel (Marie is called “the wife of Froment” here).

“I am now going to give you a humorous story. The wife of Froment lately came to this place. She declaimed through all the shops, and at almost all the cross-roads, against long garments. When she knew that I was aware of it, she excused herself by alleging that she had said with a smile, that we were either unbecomingly clothed, to the great detriment of the Church, or that you taught what was erroneous, when you said that false prophets could be distinguished by their long vestments. When I was rebutting so stale a calumny, she began to ascribe even to the Holy Spirit what she had directed against us. What is the meaning, said she, of that passage of the Gospel, “They will come to you in long garments?” I replied, that I did not know where that sentence was to be found, unless, perhaps, it might occur in the gospel of the Manichaeans; for the passage of Luke 20:45, is as follows: “Beware of the Scribes, who desire to walk in long robes,” but not, “They will come to you,” etc., which she had interpolated from Matthew 7:15. Feeling that she was closely pressed, she complained of our tyranny, because there was not a general license of prating about everything. I dealt with the woman as I should have done. She immediately proceeded to the widow of Michael, who gave her a hospitable reception, sharing with her not only her table, but her bed, because she maligned the ministers. I leave these wounds untouched, because they appear to me incurable until the Lord apply His hand.”

It is hard to know exactly what Calvin though of her “ministry” on the street corners, but it is obvious that he disagreed with her interpretation of this specific passage of the Bible. It also seems that he didn’t think highly of her loud mannerisms. Perhaps it didn’t seem appropriate for a lady to give herself such a public platform, so open to derision or debate. The fact that she maligned the ministers and retorted when Calvin tried to correct her is also unfortunate. Others (men, mostly) who maligned the Genevan ministers were usually taken to the authorities and asked to publicly apologize, but Calvin seemed to think that nothing more was needed in her case. Perhaps he realized that God was working on her in other ways. This must have been true, because the most interesting aspect of their relationship occurred fifteen years later, when Calvin asked Marie Dentiere to write the preface of his sermon on women’s apparel. Marie agreed, and exhorted women to shun the womanly vices of covetousness and materialism, especially in elaborate dress and makeup.

“You will find that those who are the most concerned about adorning their bodies, are little concerned that their spirits be adorned with true, solid virtues. As for us, we should not seek the ornament of garments, but of good behavior. As for women, who are in that regard more covetous than men, may they understand that too much daring has always been associated with immodesty; likewise, on the contrary, simplicity in clothes has always been a mark of chastity and continence.”

At the very end of her preface, she introduced Calvin and the passage he preached on, with this:

“Let us listen to the Apostle speaking to Timothy and to the man who preached publicly about that passage, a man who because of the purity of his teachings deserves to be heard among all the ministers and faithful pastors in Europe today.” In both her “Epistle” to Marguerite and this “Preface” to Calvin’s sermon, Marie included a subtle mention of her husband by including the word “froment,” which meant “wheat” but was also her husband’s last name. Some believe this to be an acknowledgment that her husband helped in authoring each of these publications.

Throughout Marie’s years in Geneva, she often spoke in favor of the reformers. When Calvin and Farel were kicked out of Geneva after their initial unsuccessful attempt at establishing the reformation in that city, Marie was one of the prominent citizens who wrote and spoke in their defense. She mentioned Calvin and Farel several times in her letter to Marguerite, affectionately referring to them as “exiles” who “don’t care or worry about pleasing anyone but their Lord and master, serving, honoring, and valuing Him.”

From these two interactions, we cannot guess very much about what Calvin thought of Marie, though many recent female writers hold that Calvin conspicuously ignored her throughout his ministry, because she was a woman behaving outside of her proper role. However, there is little evidence for this. Calvin disagreed with her teaching on long robes because she was quoting a verse improperly in order to prove her point. He took the time to stop and correct her. Her “maligning of the ministers” was certainly a serious offense in 16th century Geneva, but he treated her gently, and trusted that she would change, which seems to have been the case. When she was asked to write the preface to his sermon, she freely spoke her opinion, drawing what she believed to be Scriptural application. No doubt she had always retained great influence over the women of Geneva, and her preface to this sermon would probably increase the sermon’s readership among women. Historian McKinley suggests that the heat of the battle for the reformation had drawn Calvin’s and Marie’s goals into closer proximity. The persecution of their French brothers and sisters was increasing, and both Calvin and Marie desired to strengthen the reformation movement.

Calvin Quote on Fading Flowers vs. a Lifetime of Fruit

“It is not to be supposed that God takes a cruel pleasure in the trouble of his servants; but he thus tries all their affections, that He may not leave any lurking-places undiscovered in their hearts. We see many persons zealous for a short time, who afterwards become frozen; why is this, but because they build without a foundation?”

“Wherefore, if we desire to follow God with constancy, it behoves us carefully to meditate on all the inconveniences, all the difficulties, all the dangers which await us; that not only a hasty zeal may produce fading flowers, but that from a deep and well-fixed root of piety, we may bring forth fruit in our whole life.”

From Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 12:1

Advice for Idelette Calvin from a Dying Old Man

In the summer of 1542, a few months after Idelette had arrived in Geneva as the new wife of John Calvin, a friend of Calvin’s lay dying. His name was Ami Porral, and he was the chief magistrate of the city, as well as the one who Calvin had consulted in drawing up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances the year before. Porral was the kind of man who loved to teach and exhort. Calvin visited him before his wife Idelette had a chance to, and they talked about salvation, the resurrection, and church unity.

Calvin recounted, “Whoever called to see him, heard some suitable exhortation; and that you may not suppose it to have been mere talkative vanity, as far as was possible he applied to each individual what was best adapted to his circumstances, and most likely to be of use to him.” Porral directed some extraordinary advice to Calvin and Viret, who visited his bedside each day that week. His advice nearly knocked them over.

John CalvinCalvin says, “We were both of us in a sort of stupor of astonishment; and whenever it recurs to my memory, even yet I grow bewildered. For he spoke in such a way, that it seemed to reflect some discourse by one of ourselves after long and careful meditation… Thence he proceeded to exhort us both, as well regarding the other departments of our charge as ministers, as also to constancy and firmness; and when he discoursed at some length on the future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel, he seemed inspired with the foresight of a prophet. It was wonderful how wisely he spoke to purpose on what concerned the public weal.” The tone of Calvin’s letter shows how sincerely he took to heart this strangely insightful advice from his dying friend. The “future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel” were to be great indeed, and Calvin no doubt pondered Porral’s words in his heart for many years after.

The second afternoon, when Idelette was able to free herself from household duties, she joined her husband at Porral’s deathbed. Porral’s specific advice for Idelette penetrated her heart as well. Porral “told her to be of good courage whatever might happen, that she ought to consider that she had not been rashly led hither, but brought by the wonderful counsel of God, that she also might serve in the Gospel.”

Idelette de bure calvinThat the dying man chose this topic to encourage Idelette is interesting, because it exposes that she may have been distressed about her move to Geneva and the role it would play in her life (or he may have thought as much, whether or not it was true). At this point, she was eight months pregnant with her third child, feeling like she might be coming down with the flu, still trying to navigate this strange and new city of Geneva, and finding the inhabitants not very welcoming to foreigners. To “be of good courage, whatever might happen,” was probably exactly what she needed to hear. Porral’s encouragement that “she also might serve in the Gospel” shows his desire for her to be a true helpmeet to Calvin, “also” serving Geneva by preaching the Gospel in her work alongside her husband.

Reading over this detailed account in Calvin’s letter, I am struck by how fully the Lord used this man’s dying words to prophetically address specific fears and weaknesses in both John and Idelette Calvin’s lives. John Calvin was young and timid, by his own admission, and shied away from public spectacle whenever he could. Yet here he was exhorted to “constancy and firmness” in every future difficulty that he must take on. Idelette was far away from the home, and family, and religion of her youth, and may well have felt “rashly led” to Geneva. But Porral’s exhortation was to consider that it was by the Lord’s providential counsel that she had been brought here, and that she should courageously serve in the Gospel.

Calvin and Idelette remained at his bedside the rest of the day until he could no longer speak. Since it was getting late, Calvin and Idelette started for home, walking slowly up the dark street, pondering together the unique charges they had been given to carry out. The next morning they found out that Porral had passed away. “Scarcely had we left,” Calvin writes, “when he gave up his pious soul to Christ.”

Ask John Calvin: What is a wife for?

This summer I began to work through reading all of Calvin’s commentaries, particularly noting the sections in which he wrote about families, women, marriage, children, husbands, and fathers, and all the many ways they are intertwined. It has been incredibly rewarding. One of the major ideas so far has been that a marriage includes “all parts and usages of life” and it wasn’t established just for procreation of children. Calvin loved the Scriptural idea that God created a wife to be a man’s companion, so they could work alongside each other as if they were one and the same person, neither being inferior because both were created in God’s image.

Floris Gerritsz van Scooten  (Dutch artist, 1590–1655) Larder

“Christ is the head of man and woman without any distinction,” he said, and his view of women as equally faithful, intelligent, and spiritual followers of Christ made its way into numerous sermons and writings.

He plunged into the Hebrew of the phrase “meet for him” in the story of Eve’s creation, showing linguistically that the phrase expressed that the woman was “as if opposite to,” or “over against him… because she responds to him.” He continued,

“The Greek translators have faithfully rendered the sense, and Jerome, ‘Which may be like him,’ refuted the error of some, who think that the woman was formed only for the sake of propagation, and who restrict the word ‘good,’ which had lately been mentioned, to the production of offspring. They do not think that a wife was personally necessary for Adam, because he was hitherto free from lust; as if she had been given to him only for the companion of his chamber, and not rather that she might be the inseparable associate of his life.”

There was no place for man being the “spiritual” spouse, and women being the “practical” one, created to fulfill a man’s sexual needs, produce children, and manage the home. Though this was a common philosophy of the day and contains a bit of truth, the Scriptures—and Calvin—so obviously disagreed. A wife is the “inseparable associate of his life,” which must mean she is intelligent, companionable, talented, and fully able to come alongside or “across from” her husband to help him with his mission in life.

Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_021

Part of this mission may be to cuddle in bed, carry his children, cook his meals, and teach his sons and daughters how to spell. But that should not at all detract from the understanding that her mission is to inseparably associate herself with every aspect of his life in which she can prove herself helpful, be it business accounting, back massages, writing letters and making phone calls, editing books, research and writing, understanding and being able to discuss the gospel, buying land, giving to charity, making decisions he would have made when he is absent, and in every way proving herself a help. She should truly be a crown that does not diminish the glory of God in her husband, but causes it to show the brighter. Those are my thoughts, but read Calvin. His opinion is what you really want to hear. It’s a long quote, but hopefully my (added) paragraph breaks will help you to process it! Here it is:

“Moses now explains the design of God in creating the woman; namely, that there should be human beings on the earth who might cultivate mutual society between themselves… Since it was not expedient for man to be alone, a wife must be created, who might be his helper. I… take the meaning to be this, that God begins, indeed, at the first step of human society, yet designs to include others, each in its proper place. The commencement therefore, involves a general principle, that man was formed to be a social animal…

Now, the human race could not exist without the woman; and, therefore, in the conjunction of human beings, that sacred bond is especially conspicuous, by which the husband and the wife are combined in one body, and one soul… But although God pronounced, concerning Adam, that it would not be profitable for him to be alone, yet I do not restrict the declaration to his person alone, but rather regard it as a common law of man’s vocation, so that everyone ought to receive it as said to himself, that solitude is not good, excepting only him whom God exempts as by a special privilege.

Many think that celibacy conduces to their advantage, and, therefore abstain from marriage, lest they should be miserable. Not only have heathen writers defined that to be a happy life which is passed without a wife, but the first book of Jermoe, against Jovinian, is stuffed with petulant reproaches, by which he attempts to render hallowed wedlock both hateful and infamous. To these wicked suggestions of Satan let the faithful learn to oppose this declaration of God, by which he ordains the conjugal life for man, not to his destruction, but to his salvation… 

Now, since God assigns the woman as a help to the man, He not only prescribes to wives the rule of their vocation, to instruct them in their duty, but he also pronounces that marriage will really prove to men the best support of life.

We may therefore conclude, that the order of nature implies that the woman should be the helper of the man… The voice of God [is] to be heard, which declares that woman is given as a companion and an associate to the man, to assist him to live well. I confess, indeed that in this corrupt state of mankind, the blessing of God, which is here described, is neither perceived nor flourishes; but the cause of the evil must be considered, namely, that the order of nature, which God had appointed, has been inverted by us. For if the integrity of man had remained to this day such as it was from the beginning, that divine institution would be clearly discerned, and the sweetest harmony would reign in marriage; because the husband would look up with reverence to God; the woman would be a faithful assistant to him; and both, with one consent, would cultivate a holy, as well as friendly and peaceful [communication]. (from John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 1)

I especially love this line: “The sweetest harmony would reign in marriage, because the husband would look up with reverence to God, and the woman would be a faithful assistant to him.”

Accessibility

I’m at the Denver Seminary Library right now, my favorite place to work because they have secluded desks and aisles upon aisles of delicious books, including all of Calvin’s letters and many compilations of his other writings. At this very moment they’re pumping cinnamon roll smell from the coffee shop into every nook and cranny. But I must stay focused, as much as I’d like to take my English tea and a book and be done with writing for the day. Anyway, I just came across this quote from Calvin in Beza’s biography of him, that shows how accessible he was, to everyone.

He says, “M. de Farges boasts of having talked with princes and kings, whereas I refused to speak to him. Speaking for myself, I do not boast of having talked to great noblemen. I will simply say that every day I talk to all those who need to see me, even the youngest and the poorest.”

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My nephew and I. This little child is easy to love.

Take a moment to think what this means. Though the theology Calvin wrote about penetrated through centuries of heresy to establish most of the doctrines that the evangelical church holds to today, Calvin himself wasn’t so busy being visionary that he couldn’t talk to little people with little minds and little finances. Beza describes his great gentleness in bearing with the weaknesses and failings of others, and his remarkable affability in meeting the young on their own level.

To be able to explain great doctrines to both children and seminary students would be incredible, except that it is a characteristic that many great minds have had. C. S. Lewis was just as influential (perhaps more so) in his Narnia stories to the children as he was to the Oxford pupils he tutored, or to the adults who read Mere Christianity.  And Jesus rebuked his disciples for them turning children away from Him, saying “Let the little children come to Me.” Of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Are you convicted a little bit? Do you think more highly of your conversations than Calvin did? What would happen if we took a moment to talk with the “least of these,” to listen compassionately to the incessant woes of the widow, to explain what it means to get along with siblings to an eight-year-old, to “every day” talk to those who need to see you, “even the youngest and the poorest”? I don’t know what that would look like, but I think it would be good.

It’s interesting that his dying words included an admonition to the young, to beware of this very thing.

“Let the young retain a sense of modesty without wanting to press too far ahead, for youth always entails an element of boasting, which seeks to exalt oneself and look down on others.”

John Calvin and Hospitality in Geneva

It’s well known that John Calvin the bachelor practiced active hospitality before he was married, and that during the first months of his marriage to Idelette, many guests and boarders enjoyed John and Idelette’s home for both long and short periods of time. Calvin believed that hospitality was not a question of personal preference, but of obedience to the command to show kindness to “strangers within your gates.” Hospitality has “nearly ceased to be properly observed among men,” Calvin writes, “for the ancient hospitality celebrated in histories is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodation for strangers.” (Calvin, John, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948), p. 340)

Calvin was especially hospitable to religious refugees, teaching others in his congregation that “no duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God” than to provide kind hospitality to religious refugees.

“Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, ‘He is a stranger;’ but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that He forbids you to despise your own flesh (Isa. 58:7, Vg.). Say, ‘He is contemptible and worthless;’ but the Lord shows him to be one to who He has deigned to give the beauty of His image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to Himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.” (Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.7.6.)

Calvin’s preaching on hospitality influenced more than his own home and congregation. During Calvin’s years in Geneva, the city’s population more than doubled! Most were refugees looking for a place to safely raise their families, and with Geneva being just a few miles from the border of anti-Protestant France, Geneva was a practical and nurturing “city of refuge.” We find numerous letters of Calvin’s inviting his friends and friends of friends to Geneva. He loved having all his friends near him, and he loved adding people he had not met yet to his circle of friends.

One modern-day visitor to Geneva described some of the homes from Calvin’s era that still carry a visible mark of the incredible hospitality the Genevans practiced during the reformation. With the streets in Geneva narrowly winding in a tightly-cramped city and the surrounding gardens being very small, there was no place to expand a house’s square footage, but up! So roofs were literally lifted off these homes and another floor or two was added onto the upper story in order to accommodate more guests. The roof was then put back on the highest story, and the house was twice as accommodating than before. Like a high water-mark in a river, these homes show a high point in Geneva’s history. (Rev. Mark Englund-Krieger, “Report to the Presbytery, May 22, 2012,” on Carlisle Executive Presbyter, <http://markekrieger.blogspot.com/2012/05/report-to-presbytery-may-22-2012.html> accessed on June 16, 2012.)

Calvin was also known to have established the “5% rule” amongst local businessmen in order to obtain loans for foreign refugees in Geneva. He personally requested that banks loan refugees what the refugees would need to start a life and a business in Geneva, and to only charge them 5% interest, with no increases. This request was not a civil or pastoral command, but more of a challenge and encouragement to the business owners of Geneva. As a result of this wise “hospitable” strategy of Calvin’s, the city’s economy boomed, bringing in more still more merchants and business owners.